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Game Preview #32: New Jersey Devils vs. Detroit Red Wings

The Devils could really use a win as they take on the Red Wings for the third and final time this season

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Detroit Red Wings Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (16-13-2) vs. Detroit Red Wings (16-13-4)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, BSDET

Last Devils Game

It really struck a nerve with Devils fans, and for good reason, as it was a terrible 6-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. Vitek Vanecek came on in relief of Akira Schmid very early on and kept the Devils in the game for a while, but completely imploded in the third period to extinguish any hope of a win.

Last Red Wings Game

It happened just last night, and it was kind of a frustrating one for New Jersey. Detroit hosted the Philadelphia Flyers and jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the first period. The Flyers, however, came all the way back and even managed to take a 6-5 lead in the third period. The Wings did eventually tie the game and salvage a shootout victory, but they handed Philadelphia a point that the Devils surely would’ve preferred they didn’t hand them.

Last Devils-Red Wings Game

It was a 4-0 loss in Detroit on November 22nd. It was arguably the worst loss of the season at the time, and the scary thing is that game might not even rank in the top five worst losses of the season now. That contest was also notable for snapping the Devils’ remarkable streak of not getting shut out:

New Jersey hasn’t been shut out since, so I guess we’ll have to see how far this new shutout-less streak can reach.

It’s The Economy Goaltending, Stupid

Every single game, without fail, we talk about the Devils goaltending. The most recent game is of course no exception, with Schmid getting chased about half a second into the game, and Vanecek getting blown up in the third period. For those putting a new goaltender on their Christmas wishlist, general manager Tom Fitzgerald won’t be able to slide down the chimney with a fresh face between the pipes in the immediate future thanks to the leaguewide holiday roster freeze. But something has to give with the Devils goaltending situation, right?

Vitek Vanecek: 20 games played, 11-6-1 record, .883 SV%, 3.35 GAA, -8.67 Goals Saved Above Average (According to NST)

Akira Schmid: 15 games played, 5-7-1 record, .893 SV%, 3.26 GAA, -3.12 GSAA

Those are not numbers that a team can win with, let alone compete for a Stanley Cup with.

Truth be told, I really don’t know what the answer is. A part of me thinks Vanecek and Schmid HAVE to round into form at some point. A part of me thinks there’s no salvaging them. A part of me thinks it would be foolish to trade for John Gibson. A part of me thinks there’s a ton of upside in trading for John Gibson. A part of me thinks there’s no point in acquiring a lottery ticket like Jake Allen or Jaroslav Halak. A part of me thinks it can’t hurt to kick the tires on lottery tickets.

Yes the defense has let their goaltenders down far more than they should, but this is still largely on the goaltending. All we can do is hope a solution appears soon.

Good News/Bad News At The Top

The top pairing that is, or at least what is marginally considered the top pairing these days.

We’ll start with the good news: The rise of Simon Nemec. Obviously there have been growing pains and rookie mistakes during his first handful of games in the NHL, but those blunders have been more than offset by shockingly good play for a teenage defenseman getting his first taste of life in The Show:

All at the age of 19!

Development is not linear, as we have witnessed with Dawson Mercer this season. So even though Nemec looks as impressive as he does right now does not mean that he is destined to just improve and improve and improve with no setbacks whatsoever. But for a prospect with the pedigree of Nemec, who already looks this good, it’s hard not to get excited about the future this kid has in New Jersey.

And now for the bad news...the fall of Jonas Siegenthaler:

Meanwhile according to Natural Stat Trick, Siegenthaler has been on the ice for 22.79 xGA at 5-on-5 this season, which is the most on the entire team. On a per-60 basis, Siegenthaler looks a little better at merely 10th-worst on the team with 2.58 xGA/60 at 5-on-5. But last season, Siegenthaler was at 2.38 xGA/60, which may not seem like a huge difference, but it really is considering how much that adds up over the course of a season.

Dougie Hamilton was a popular scapegoat around these parts when he was healthy, and the reason for that was his perceived lack of defensive acumen. I honestly believe that Hamilton is not nearly as bad defensively as many do, although I certainly would not argue that he is anything close to a shutdown guy. Frankly, I think Siegenthaler deserved way more blame than he got for the defensive shortcomings of the top pair (and the team as a whole), both when Hamilton was playing and now in a post-Hamilton world.

This is a really concerning trend. For the past two seasons entering 2023-24, Siegenthaler was one of the best defensive defensemen in the league, a perfect compliment for a roving, offensive juggernaut like Hamilton. But then Siegenthaler stopped holding up his end of the bargain, and things started to fall apart for him and the team. He is far from the only one who deserves blame, but I think he has to be near the top of the list.

Now, I don’t think this is an irreversible trend. I think Siegenthaler can be saved, and in fact I would bet on him bouncing back and regaining his prior form at some point. But I don’t know when that point is, and I don’t know what it will take to get him back there. A bad 30-ish games does not mean Siegenthaler is broken, but if the Devils are going to get themselves back to where they expected to be, he needs to step it up soon.

More Line Blending Coming?

The Devils practiced yesterday. Here’s how they lined up:

Stein mentioned that Nate Bastian took a maintenance day, hence his absence.

Colin Miller returned following the birth of his child (congrats!) but I don’t know if we can expect to see him tonight. I’m also really not a fan of Curtis Lazar on the Nico Hischier line. I personally would flip him and Alexander Holtz, even though I think Holtz has a ways to go to prove he deserves an assignment in the top-6 consistently. But in this case I just think it makes for better synergy to swap Holtz and Lazar given their skill levels and play styles.

Falling Fast

The Red Wings entered this season as a team seemingly ready to take the next step in their rebuild. While they might not be Cup contenders yet, they were expected to at least compete for a playoff spot. Things were going reasonably well on that front through December 5th, as they improved to 14-7-3 with a win over the Buffalo Sabres that night.

But since that day, it’s been tough sledding for the Wings. Prior to last night’s win (which we’ll get to momentarily), Detroit went 1-6-1 over their last eight games since that win against Buffalo. They currently find themselves battling it out for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference alongside the Devils, making this game relatively important for both squads.

By The Skin of Their Teeth

For all the terrible losses the Devils have endured this season, none would have been worse than the loss the Red Wings were close to suffering last night. As mentioned above, Detroit came within an eyelash of blowing a 5-1 lead to the Flyers. But after Philadelphia took a miraculous 6-5 lead late in the third, Dylan Larkin’s late goal tied things up and eventually the Wings got the extra point in the shootout. New addition Patrick Kane had two goals and an assist last night, Larkin had his goal plus a helper, and Alex DeBrincat collected three assists himself.

Injuries and Lineups

James Riemer got the start and embarrassed himself last night, so I would imagine we’ll see Michael Hutchinson. The journeyman backstop was signed by Detroit very recently thanks to injuries to Ville Husso and Alex Lyon. Husso was placed on IR earlier this week, while Lyon was hurt about a week ago. Here’s what head coach Derek Lalonde had to say about his wounded netminders (from the article linked in this paragraph):

“Ville will be unavailable for us for a while here, so more in that week to week category. Alex had his first workout today but I do not see him available for us until probably after Christmas.”

So unless Lalonde wants to risk Riemer humiliating himself even further tonight, it looks like it will be Hutchinson this evening.

Meanwhile, here’s how Detroit lined up in front of the crease last night:

Olli Maatta was injured last night and will not play this evening, so this will not be the exact lineup New Jersey sees tonight, but I assume it will be pretty close.

I Hate This Phrase, But...

This game sort of feels like a must-win for New Jersey.

Personally I hate that term, I think it is way overused. Even if the Devils lose tonight, they can still easily make the playoffs, making tonight by definition not a “must-win”. But taking the phrase less literally, this really does feel like a game New Jersey should absolutely get two points out of, and frankly they should do it easily.

The Devils are rested while this is the second half of a back-to-back for the Red Wings. On top of that, their game was in Detroit last night, meaning they had to travel all the way to the Garden State for this contest. Not to mention their game last night went all the way to a shootout, and the fact that they coughed up a 5-1 lead, fell behind 6-5, tied the game late, then rallied for a shootout victory had to be a huge emotional burden for the team.

The Devils goaltending is obviously shaky, but Hutchinson is a bad NHL goaltender. This might be one of the rare games this season in which New Jersey has the advantage between the pipes.

Add it all up, and there really is no excuse for not getting a win this evening. Again, I generally hate the phrase “must-win”, but I think given the circumstances if New Jersey doesn’t skate away with two points tonight I will be tremendously disappointed. No excuses, get the win.

Season’s Greetings and Your Take

This is the Devils’ last game before the mini holiday break. As such, this will be the last time you hear from me on this site before Christmas (in an article at least, maybe I’ll continue to mix it up in the comments section over the break). So I just wanted to take a moment to say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours. The Devils might be a frustrating mess at the moment, but despite the on-ice struggles of our favorite team, I have had a blast in my first season writing on this blog. I’d like to thank you all, the People Who Matter, for welcoming me to the All About the Jersey family, whether that be through words of encouragement or spirited disagreements and debates. I’ll be back next week to write about some more Devils hockey, to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and to look forward to a great 2024 of All About the Jersey fun.

So now let’s hear from you. What do you make of tonight’s game? Who do you think needs to step up the most? Who on Detroit will you be watching closely? Once again, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, and thanks for reading!